An Open Letter to the Yale Muslims and Humanists Who Opposed Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Speech

Ayaan Hirsi AliOn September 15, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the author of Infidel and Nomad and a critic of Islam, spoke at Yale University. While the event itself went relatively smoothly, her presence wasn’t without conflict. More than 35 groups — including, to my disappointment, the Yale Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics — signed an open letter expressing their disappointment in the invitation.

Below is an open letter to the Yale Humanists and Muslim Students Association written by Muhammad Syed, the co-founder and Executive Director of Ex-Muslims of North America, a community-building organization for ex-Muslims across the non-theist spectrum.

As an activist and an ex-Muslim, I have witnessed many attempts to prevent direly-needed conversations by those threatened by the voices of others. I am saddened to see this trend continue — namely, the letter signed by several student organizations at Yale in order to prevent Ayaan Hirsi Ali from speaking at their university.

[Hemant’s note (Updated 7:53p CT): I should have caught this earlier, but the Muslims Students Association didn’t explicitly call for Hirsi Ali’s invitation to be rescinded in their letter. Rather, they called for her speech to be limited to her own experiences (meaning she wouldn’t be allowed to speak about her perception of Islam in general) and for another speaker with “academic credentials” to also be invited. To their credit, the Buckley Program said no to both requests. That said, a representative from the MSA did initially ask for Ali to be disinvited, according to the leader of the Buckley Program. My apologies for the confusion.]

I believe the Yale Muslim Students Association should be ashamed of their attempt to silence Hirsi Ali, and the Yale Humanists should be ashamed for being complicit in the effort.

There is no doubt that Hirsi Ali has made comments that are often deemed inflammatory to Muslims. Although I find myself often disagreeing with her stances, I admire her courage and stamina. No one has shed light on the barbaric practices continued in the name of Islam as forcefully as she has. The fact that she is one of the only ex-Muslims speaking out about these kinds of practices is not evidence that the abuse is rare or confined to small fundamentalist communities. Rather, it is evidence of the censure and targeting of those who are willing to speak frankly about Islam and demand change in the Muslim world.

In the letter, it is claimed that Hirsi Ali should not speak on Islam due to the fact that “she does not hold the credentials” to do so, and when she was given the opportunity to speak in the past, she “overlooked the complexity of sociopolitical issues in Muslim-majority countries and has purported that Islam promotes a number of violent and inhumane practices.”

To any liberal-minded person, this reasoning will sound weak at best and intolerant at worst. According to these Yale student organizations, only one who has the right “credentials” (a term that is not defined) and purports a positive view of Islam should be allowed to speak at their university. What is this if not blatant censorship?

Although this behavior is regrettably expected from the Muslim Students Association (MSA), I’m shocked that the Yale Humanists have joined such an effort. In addition to co-signing the MSA’s letter, the Yale Humanists added that they don’t believe she represents the “totality of the ex-Muslim experience” in their own statement.

Which begs the question: Who, exactly, does represent a “totality” of an experience? Which ex-Muslim voice is “valid” enough or has the right credentials to critique Islam? Do Muslims need special “credentials” when speaking positively of Islam? Or is that requirement reserved only for those who do not believe that all religious traditions are the same and wonderful end-to-end? Do I have to believe (as Muslims do) that Islam is ultimately a peaceful religion or that Muhammad was a role-model for mankind before I’m deemed credible enough to speak about the faith?

I’d wager that fewer than a dozen people globally have the level of interaction with ex-Muslims on a daily basis as I do, and I can tell you that the ex-Muslim experiences range from horrific to mundane, from victims of female genital mutilation to those who were merely discouraged from becoming independent, from those committed to psychiatric institutions for disbelieving to those murdered for it, from those who live in fear or hiding to those who walked away without a physical or emotional scratch. To say anyone could represent the “totality” of those experiences is complete and utter nonsense.

In fact, as a courageous Somali woman, Hirsi Ali’s existence alone is an inspiration to many, including one of our young Somali members who stated:

“I hate her views on current events and the statements she puts forth, she can be biased and too personal in her views, but there’s a place in my heart for her only because before, I literally thought it was impossible to be a female, Somali ex-Muslim so to deny her and being ‘offended’ by her visit, denies my existence socially from being known and accepted”.

As a former Muslim with friends and loved ones who are Muslim, I am disappointed with the behavior of the Muslim Students Association. There’s a pattern of silencing dissent that runs through the Muslim world both today and throughout much of its history, which we all need to work together to end. That effort should include all the signatories of the letter, including the Yale MSA, a group that I believe should lead the fight against fundamentalism and work towards fostering an open and honest dialogue.

I ask this of the MSA: If we consider Hirsi Ali’s ideas to be unworthy or inflammatory, is the appropriate response to engage with and counter those arguments or to prevent her from speaking altogether? Would the Palestinian (and other) MSA members consider it productive if Jewish or Israeli students tried to shut down any debate on Israeli war policies due to it being disrespectful?

The grand tradition of challenging orthodoxy, demanding change, and embodying the revolutionary spirit at great universities has somehow been lost. As Muslim students at Yale (and other universities), you are uniquely positioned to bridge the gap and bring about change that is sorely needed in the Muslim world. Instead, somehow, you’ve settled on defending the status quo. If you cannot muster the intellectual courage to step up and change the world, who else will?

There will never be reform or improvement if you are unwilling to even hear out ideas that are threatening to your beliefs. The complete lack of introspection, self-criticism, and demands for improvement paved the way for my disillusionment with the Muslim community many years ago and remains a main reason why I believe the Muslim community lacks the will to adapt to the modern world.

I look around the Muslim intellectual community, and I wonder: Where are the blistering critiques of Zakir Naik, a charlatan that is quite literally destroying the future of the Muslim world by peddling unscientific lies, who says apostates like me should be killed? Where are the books written debunking Harun Yahya, and the denunciations of the Islamic Society of North America for peddling his Creationist clap-trap?

Instead of trying to ban Ayaan Hirsi Ali, how about inviting her or other ex-Muslims for a dialogue? Perhaps even hosting debates on how to critically evaluate which parts of Islamic policy and law need to be reformed instead of plugging your ears and pretending as if the problems don’t exist? As the educated elite of Muslims, where are your writings about the problems of creating incurious generations and the dangers of not promoting critical thought? What about championing the need to find actual evidence of our shared history?

You have the ability to help improve the lives of apostates, LGBTQ members of your community, and subjugated women. You can lobby to pass legislation on eliminating forced marriages and raise funds to help those who need to escape abusive situations instead of pretending as if it doesn’t happen in Muslim households. You can act as watchdogs and condemn those religious leaders who encourage women to stay with abusive families. You can encourage Muslim women to seek civil divorce instead of going through a patriarchal religious authority who, too often, denies them agency. You can both celebrate World Hijab Day and defend the right of women to reject modesty codes without facing social or legal repercussions. You can do so much moreto better the state of Muslims and Muslim society, but instead you spend your time silencing criticism.

There are a million ways in which you can transform the world, but if you want a better tomorrow, a tomorrow that is clearly within your grasp, it requires moral and intellectual courage as well as honesty. That change will not come if Muslims refuse to accept criticism and their allies defend them, even at the cost of sacrificing the liberal values they hold dear.